Saturday, October 27, 2007

Carnage In Karachi II

As soon as I read about the massive bombing in Karachi last week, my mind went back to one of AKS' more inane quotes. AKS, regular readers will recall, mused on the Lal Masjid fiasco in the summer, and wondered aloud whether it really would have been that bad if the militants had a small nuclear weapon and used it during their standoff against security forces. No, Kabir is not a genocidal maniac. His point was this: the more violent extremists in Pakistan become, the more they stand to lose support from (a) the fence-sitters and (b) those who believe terrorism is not a problem or, at the very least, not Pakistan's problem. This weaning off of support for extremism is crucial, and so if they did use a nuclear device in the middle of Islamabad, it would force almost all Pakistanis to stand in opposition to these militants, and that would be that.

I disagreed. If a nuclear device was used by radical clerics and their militant buddies in the middle of Islamabad, I argued, only a few supporters/sympathizers would change their opinion on the matter. Instead, those supporters would submit one or more of the following claims: (a) the Lal Masjid clerics/militants were in fact CIA agents; (b) the Lal Masjid clerics/militants were in fact RAW agents; (c) the Lal Masjid clerics/militants had no other choice in the face of such provocation and injustice; (d) the Lal Masjid clerics/militants were only fighting fire with fire, and responsibility for the explosion of the nuclear device ultimately would rest with Musharraf, his security forces and, quite naturally, the U.S. In other words, excuses would be made, blame would be evaded and if anything, people would find in such a tragedy only reaffirming evidence for their beliefs: if the Americans would just leave Afghanistan, if Musharraf were to just stop fighting America's war, if the English-speaking liberati would just shut the fuck up, then there'd be no nuclear explosion in Islamabad. The fault for the hypothetical nuclear explostion, in other words, would not lie with the militants but with the forces they were fighting.

I have long argued that the two principal fissures in Pakistani politics are (a) secular-progressives vs. religous-Sharias; and (b) strong center advocates vs. provincial rights advocates [older readers will know, and newer readers should know, I am in the first camp on (a) and second camp on (b)]. Issues such as democracy, tax rates and land reform, while important, are procedural. They refer to how the state should run. The issues I point to in the first sentence of this paragraph, however, are more fundamental - they refer to what the state is. Indeed, this assertion is borne out by historical events. While struggles for democracy - including the current one set off by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's firing last March - and disputes over leftist/rightist economy policy have been sporadic and intermittent in our country's history, the tension vis-a-vis the role of Islam in the state and the extent of provincial rights have manifested themselves continually almost since the day of independence.

These matters have, over the last few years, come to a head. Though the center-province issue is as important, if not more so, than the secular/religous dispensation of the state, I will concentrate on the latter here. It is my contention that because of their excessively Islamic persuasions, the Pakistani public, media, political elite and intelligence services have all played their part in allowing, even facilitating, militant acitivity in our country. The result is there for all to see.

On prevailing in a guerilla war, Mao famously said that you have to drain the sea to catch the fish. He understood perfectly well - one of the few things he understood perfectly well - that insurgents/guerillas stand no chance of winning if the population around them does not want them to win. Separate the population - physically or ideologically - from the guerillas in their midst, and catching the fish suddenly becomes a whole lot easier. Though there are important differences between terrorism and guerilla warfare - the primary one being the regularity with which attacks are launched - one significant similarity is the fact that no asymmetrical militant activity can succeed without support from a local population. It simply cannot happen.

Such support for the Taliban, al-Qaeda and various other militant organizations has been more than forthcoming in Pakistan for a while now. Many in our intelligence services consider themselves Muslims first, Pakistanis second. The Friday Times for long has referred to the ISI as the Invisible Soldiers of Islam, only half-jokingly. Our media and public, too, extend extraordinary levels of sympathy for militants by either obfuscating the issue at hand - "Who trained them in the 80s?" "Guantanamo Bay!" "Iraq!" - or by somehow making the militants innocent victims in a grand and vast conspiracy. These theories render militants' activity as reaction to events, and grants them little agency. Never mind that the same bastards were blowing up girls' schools years before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Never mind that they have always threatened barbers and video shop owners with death and destruction. Never mind that they espouse a violent and repressive logic of life - if one can call it that. No, if the militants are up to no good - and that's a big if, mind you - it's all America's (or someone else's) fault.

While the media and public are exceedingly culpable in their acquiesence of terrorism on Pakistani soil, our political elite and intelligence agencies deserve far more of the blame. Even before she boarded a plane back to Karachi, Benazir wrote a letter to Musharraf, asking to investigate certain officials in power if something were to happen to her. Educated guesswork and typical Pakistani speculation has turned up some interesting names. In particular Ejaz Shah, head of Intelligence Bureau - one of Pakistan's three intelligence agencies - keeps coming up. Others include the charming Chaudhry cousins and Ejaz-ul-Haq, son of my good man Zia. Did these people have something to do with the suicide attacks in Karachi? At present there is no way of knowing. We obviously need more information from the investigation of the entire affair, which is not off to the brightest of starts what with the man who allegedly tortured Zardari in charge of it and all.

The point to be made is that even if these people were not directly involved in the attacks, no one can argue they would have been terribly upset if the attacks had succeeded in killing Benazir. For them, Pakistan is an Islamic state, not a Muslim one, and anyone arguing otherwise is wrong. Anyone powerful arguing otherwise is both wrong and dangerous. And if the events of last week have proven anything, it's that Benazir is a powerful, powerful woman. No one else in Pakistan can snap their fingers and have hundreds of thousands of people turn out on the street. No one. Add to that the fact that she is supported mightily by the West for a variety of reasons and you have perhaps a woman more powerful than almost everyone in power. She is a threat to both their instrumental interests and their ideological ones. They simply will not stand for a moderate woman leading a policy of engagement with the rest of the world.

Whether or not it was the attempt on Benazir's life that caused our government to leap to action, leap to action it has certainly done. A report in the New Statesman a couple of days ago said that there is to be massive military offensive in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan in the coming days. In response to another explosion that led to the death of 30 security personnel on Thursday, the government today launched attacks around Swat. Their target in this particular battle is Maulana Fazlullah, the same jackass who spread rumours from his radio broadcast that the polio vaccination drive in the Northern areas was in fact a nefarious Western plot to render Muslim nations impotent. Of course, that led to attacks on innocent aid workers, who decided it was not worth the trouble, which quite naturally led to greater incidences of polio in the region. The same jackass has taken to inciting calls for jihad against Pakistani security forces and police. Whether this is a short term tactical shift or a longer term strategic shift remains to be seen. For now at least, appeasement isn't on the cards. And that can only be a good thing.

The aggressive tackling of militants in our cities and tribal regions will, of course, not please many. An astonishingly high proportion of Pakistanis believe we are fighting America's war. They refuse to see, or simply cannot see, that these militants hurt Pakistan infinitely more than they can ever hurt the U.S. People claim that if we were to leave them alone, let them be and completely withdraw from the tribal regions, they would leave us alone. Never mind any notions of sovereignty or writ of the state. Never mind the fact that they threaten the security of the Pakistani state and its nationals. Never mind the fact that they are already in our cities, and have been for years now. Nope - for the blinkered public, we leave them alone, and everyone will live happily ever after. Imran Khan, in a breathtakingly offensive piece in which he wrote essentially that Benazir had it coming, said as much: leave them alone, dump the alliance with the U.S., and everything will be just fine. All one can say is: let's hope Imran Khan never actually amounts to anything. For the sake of Pakistan, let's really hope Imran Khan never actually amounts to anything.

The attacks on the PPP did more than just kill one hundred and forty people. They have completely shaken up the political status quo in Pakistan today. As Ahmed Rashid wrote, what was already a tentative alliance between Musharraf and Benazir has just gotten more fragile. With BB making accusations of people in Musharraf's government "abusing their power," with PPP and PML-Q legislators at each others' throats on national television, with Musharraf forced to placate the right wing of the Q-League with assurances that are the verbal equivalent of lovingly petting a cat, and with the MMA in disarry, all bets are well and truly off. No one knows the answer to any of the following questions:

1. Now that Benazir is back in the country, has shown her political clout on the street and has shown her importance to the Pakistani media insofar as the fight against terrorism is concerned, how willing will she be to keep within the contours of the alliance with Musharraf?

2. Will Nawaz Sharif come back? If yes, when?

3. Will Musharraf ditch the PPP, rig the elections for the Q-League, and take his chances that the judiciary and the public will be pliant? Alternatively, will he ditch the Q-League, reaffirm his support to the PPP, and hope that Benazir doesn't get too uppity? Or will he opt for a combination of the two?

4. Do the "moderate, democratic forces" that Benazir continues to refer to mean (a) the PPP, the MQM and a bunch of smaller nationalist parties; (b) a grand alliance between the PPP and the PML-N; or (c) none of the above?

Furthermore, questions abound on non-party politics issues too, such as:

1. Will the October 18 bombings help reduce support for terrorism in Pakistan? In other words, is Ali Kabir right?

2. In the face of persistent threats to her life, and with the workings of security agencies increasingly coming into question, will Benazir actually make it to the elections in one piece?

3. Will Benazir's exhortations against madrassas, Ejaz Shah, and the ISI result in any tangible dividends?

Readers, I cannot express exactly how much the Taliban, al-Qaeda and all their local affiliates piss me off. I cannot express how much the actions and words of their enablers in the public, media and government piss me off. I cannot express the gravity of the danger these people present to our country, and just how very great the stakes are. What I can express is the following: we need a leadership that understands the threat, that does not dismiss it casually, and that wants to tackle it head-on, both militarily and politically. There are, unfortunately, too few candidates that fit that description. Benazir, for all her faults - and there are many - is one that does. I implore you: get behind her and her party. They are our best shot.


NB said...

The other is Musharraf. You can argue that he cant tackle it politically, but she might have the same problem but in a different way vis'a'vis her relationship with the army rather than the public(though Kiyani from what Ive read is pro-deal so its arguable).

So I agree with you on what youve said, particularly with respect to supporting leadership that knows that this is our fight. I also agree that this is a fight with the same national significance as the 71 war or Pakistan's Afghan Jihad against the Russians.

However for me that means supporting both Mush and BB, even though i strongly dislike his PMLQ, and her+her husband. More than anything else, im hoping Mush and BB can work it out, and then continue to work with each other. If they cannot, then they simply arent as committed to this issue as they have to be in order to resolve it, or at least make a dent in it.

NB said...

BBs going to have to cede something significant for Mush to feel comfortable with ditching the PML-Q. Maybe shedding Zardari would do the trick.

Ahsan said...

yes, supporting mush was implicit though it should be said he has wavered in his conviction at times on this issue.

irfan hussain on pretty much exactly the topic of this post:

NB said...

dude, its even worse than you predicted. Kabir didnt post his usual ambiguously sarcastic/mad comment. This is the final straw. I think we should go on strike.